A 21st-century upgrade

Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum is embarking on a huge expansion that will reveal hidden layers under the site and even connect visitors by a tunnel with the Mamilla area.

Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One of the perks of being the director of the Tower of David Museum is the workspace. Eilat Lieber’s office is in a 16th-century Ottoman tower, where the windows are narrow slits once used for shooting arrows at approaching enemies that now offer a stunning view of Jerusalem.
It’s a room that lends itself to ponderings on the twists and turns of history, and on the centuries of civilizations that have passed through the city, desirous of possessing both its strategic position and its singular aura as a spiritual center of the world’s three monotheistic religions.
Lieber’s career has run a parallel course with the museum’s history. As a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, she was part of the original team that designed the museum when it opened in 1989. Later she served as head of the museum’s education department, so when she was appointed museum director in 2012, she was already intimately acquainted with its role as an iconic Jerusalem landmark.
Now, five years into her job, Lieber can boast of transforming the museum’s role, taking it from a heritage site to a major cultural institution hosting numerous artistic and musical events.
These include the Sacred Music Festival, Nylon (a platform for 14 city art schools to showcase the best of their graduates’ work), a sound-and-light show, opera productions and Hackathons – where computer-design experts come together for all night brainstorming sessions in the 1,000-year-old Crusader Hall.
Lieber is currently spearheading an effort to offer much more, planning a comprehensive upgrade with the Israel Antiquities Authority based on the introduction of cutting-edge technology, an educational center, an archeological garden, and a new wing of the Kishle building – an Ottoman-era structure whose layers archeologists have identified with every regime that has controlled the city over the last 4,000 years.
The project is expected to double the area of the museum from some 7,900 sq.m. to 15,000 sq.m., with the permanent exhibition area doubling to almost 4,000 sq.m.
Though the image of the 17th-century Ottoman minaret rising above the walls has become an icon of the Old City itself, the citadel has been a military and political seat of power for millennia.
Indeed, there are few sites in the world which offer a comparable panorama of so many shifting civilizations in a single space.
Chosen for its position overlooking the surrounding hills, one can view evidence of a Hasmonean Greek wall, climb a guard tower built by Herod, and see how the place was used as barracks for the Roman Legion.
In the fourth century a community of Christian monks moved into the citadel and it was the Byzantines who later gave the name “Tower of David” to the site, after mistakenly identifying the spot as the original location of King David’s palace.
Subsequent invaders – including the Crusaders, the Mamelukes and the Ottoman Turks – made use of the citadel to house their armies and guard the city, each changing the site to suit their political, military and religious needs.
In 1917, with the transfer of the city to British rule, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby used the site to officially proclaim victory and subsequently used the venue as a cultural center. After its capture of the Old City in 1948, the Arab Legion again utilized the citadel for military purposes, as it offered a clear view across the armistice line into Jewish Jerusalem.
Following the reunification of the capital in 1967, Teddy Kollek, with the financial support of the Clore Israel Foundation, established the museum with the vision that it would become a landmark showcasing history, arts and music. The foundation continues to support the museum, which has enabled the upgrade.
The overall project is budgeted at more than $30 million, and the foundation has earmarked a major donation to fund the renewal, subject to finalization of the plans and approval by all relevant authorities.
“When the museum first opened in 1989, the layout of the entrance to the Old City through Jaffa Gate was very different,” explains Caroline Shapiro, head of international public relations. “With the opening of the Mamilla outdoor walkway, the whole area around Jaffa Gate has been transformed, and we want to upgrade the museum in a way that integrates that change.
“Take the entrance to the museum, for example.
Today, in order to visit the museum you come through Jaffa Gate, walk all the way around the citadel walls and turn right. When you leave, the exit from the museum takes you outside the Old City.
“When the tower was conceived as a defense structure, this made sense, as it made it more difficult for the enemy to find and conquer the entryway.
Today, however, it’s much more logical for visitors to enter the museum from the west entrance outside the walls and to exit directly into the Old City afterward.”
The architectural firm of Kimmel-Eshkolit, which specializes in preservation of historic buildings, was chosen to design the renewal project, including a completely new entryway that will incorporate the archeological remains found under the Mamilla bridge and Jaffa Gate.
In this area, currently neglected as dead space, a Byzantine bathhouse excavated 20 years ago will be restored and preserved, using that space to create an underground continuum leading from the Mamilla parking lot directly into the museum. The complex will include an archeological garden and a new wing – to house the museum’s educational department, classrooms and lecture rooms – with an eye to deepening its role as an educational center for the history and archeology of the capital.
Another planned project is the restoration of the Kishle, which lies just to the west of the museum.
The stone edifice was built in 1860 to house barracks for the Ottoman army. During the British Mandate it was converted to a jail where members of the Jewish resistance were incarcerated.
The compound was abandoned and then excavated during the 1990s, when, as they unearthed layer after layer, archeologists discovered a veritable time line of Jerusalem’s history, which presents a visual and tactile record of the peoples that have inhabited the city.
Finds include a section of King Hezekiah’s wall built during the First Temple period (800 BCE), the foundations of King Herod’s palace and water system from 2,000 years ago, Crusader-era dyeing pools, the Ottoman city walls, and incredibly, sitting atop all of this, original graffiti carved into the walls by imprisoned Jewish resistance fighters. This remarkable building will be incorporated into the museum complex.
“The museum has traditionally been based on using the physical site as the central artifact,” Lieber explains. “When we first opened in 1989, we made a point of using what was then cutting-edge technology to tell the story of the city of Jerusalem. Museum directors and curators came from all over the world to learn from us.
“Now, as we develop the upgrade, we plan to make use of the best current technology to bring the history of the site to life. The new exhibition will integrate experiential and technological elements along with archeological artifacts, manuscripts, Judaica, ancient maps, archive films and pictures. We want to emphasize the relevance of place to the history and stories we are telling.”
But for Lieber and her staff, the museum is not only about history. “Jerusalem today is also art, design, unique neighborhoods, food, music, photography, and a mosaic of cultures. The city is a dynamic meeting point between east and west, and it’s our goal to reflect that reality.”
The upgrade will be subject to final approval in the coming months. In the meantime, the museum has planned a host of activities. A Festival of Knights is planned for the site in August, a biennale of contemporary Jewish art will open in October, and in December, the museum will hold a special show marking the centenary of the British conquest of the city, including unique artifacts on loan from London’s Imperial War Museum.
“I see one of our most important functions as being a place where groups of Israeli schoolchildren, from every sector of society can come to learn about their cultural legacy,” Lieber explains.“Our educational staff consists of people from many different communities who participate in creating our school tour programs.
“The idea is that each tour, whether it be for haredi children, the secular or religious schools, or for Muslim and Christian groups, is tailored according to the unique meaning of the site for each community.
“We get over 400,000 visitors a year,” Lieber says with a smile, “but my greatest satisfaction is to see the groups of schoolchildren from so many different backgrounds engaging with this place and experiencing it as part of their cultural heritage.”